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It is fashionable to blame Tony Blair for everything. To some in the Labour party, the former prime minister took it on a neoliberal detour and lost 5m votes between 1997 and 2010. To others gleefully awaiting the Chilcot report, he is a war CRIminal who deserves to be tried at The Hague. These aspersions are wrong, but there is one matter we can hold Mr Blair responsible for. If Britain votes to leave the EU on June 23, he should arguably shoulder a good deal of the blame.
It all goes back to 2004, when the EU was significantly enlarged with the accession of several eastern European countries, including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Unlike the Germans, Mr Blair unwisely decided against imposing transitional controls on freedom of movement for these new EU citizens. His government predicted that enlargement would see 13,000 people a year coming to Britain. The number ended up being closer to 170,000 a year.
As a Financial Times editorial piece?argued recently, Mr Blair “seriously underestimated the number of east Europeans who would come to Britain” and his mishandling of the EU’s eastward expansion created the widespread notion that immigration is out of control.
Over the past 12 years, politicians have tried to grapple with this issue — David Cameron’s ill-advised pledge to reduce net migration to below 100,000 a year is just the latest example of this. Brexit campaigners have found success by using these failed promises as a stick with which to beat their opponents.
Mr Blair, meanwhile, has shown no remorse for his actions. In an interview last year, he addressed the issue of transitional controls head on: “All we did was bring forward what would have happened anyway. In 2004 the economy was booming and we had a requirement for skilled workers from abroad. Supposing you put all those people from eastern Europe back out of Britain again, would we be a stronger, better country? The answer is no.” But Mr Blair failed to acknowledge that if the UK had waited until other countries opened themselves to the new Eastern EU members, the beachhead would not have existed and so the relative attractions of the UK to migrants would have been smaller.
If June 23 does become Britain’s “Independence Day”, as some Leave campaigners have desCRIbed it, there will be a long hit list of people who will be blamed. Mr Cameron will be near the top, for calling the referendum in the first place and for backing the losing side. Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader, will also be in trouble, thanks to his lackadaisical attitude during the referendum campaign. But amid the apportioning of praise and blame to our current political leaders, we should remember one from the past who accidentally stoked the fires of anti-immigration sentiment in the first place.